Stacey Abrams’s defeat in the Georgia governor’s race was only a few weeks old when she arrived in New York in December to meet with campaign donors and political allies. At a reception in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, a supporter asked her what she would do next.
Ms. Abrams, attendees recalled, said she was undecided, except on one point: She was determined to seek high office again.
Since that meeting, Ms. Abrams’s next political moment has arrived with startling speed. She is slated to give the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, a task of extraordinary prominence and an unheard-of distinction for a candidate who fell short of victory in the midterms.
But Ms. Abrams’s planned rebuttal to Mr. Trump is only one element of the role she is positioned to play in national politics: Democratic Party leaders are already imploring her to put her name back on the ballot, this time as a challenger to Senator David Perdue, a Georgia Republican who is loyally aligned with Mr. Trump. Democrats believe that by challenging Mr. Perdue in 2020, Ms. Abrams could help break the Republican Party’s near-monopoly on Southern power in the Senate, and perhaps help make Georgia competitive in the presidential race.
Ms. Abrams remains undecided about running for the Senate, according to multiple people who have spoken with her directly. Her longstanding aspiration has been to serve as Georgia’s governor, and she still believes that is the most consequential job she could seek. But her allies acknowledge that Ms. Abrams is listening to her party’s entreaties, and that she has grown more open to the idea of opposing Mr. Perdue.
The party’s establishment has lined up strongly behind the idea, with Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, and multiple Democratic presidential candidates lobbying her to enter the race. Charles Myers, an investor and Democratic political donor who raised money for Ms. Abrams in 2018, said he and other contributors were eager to back her in a new campaign.
“I hope she runs,” Mr. Myers said, adding of the governor’s race: “That election was stolen from her.”
More than any other candidate of 2018, Ms. Abrams has come to sit at a nexus of important forces in Democratic politics: Her candidacy became a symbol to national Democrats, first of the power that women and African-Americans exercised in the midterms, and then of an electoral system the party views as badly broken. She became something of a political martyr with her narrow loss to Brian Kemp, a Republican who supervised the election as Georgia’s secretary of state, and whom Ms. Abrams and civil rights groups accused of seeking to suppress minority votes.
In her campaign, Ms. Abrams, 45, seemed at times to preview the balancing act Democrats may seek to execute in the presidential race, mixing a progressive message on issues like health care with a vision of bipartisan government and economic growth that attracted moderate suburban whites.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama who is close with Ms. Abrams, called the loss a painful but not crippling one. “You can be hurt by the outcome of an election, but not defeated,” Ms. Jarrett said. “And she is far from defeated.”
DuBose Porter, a former Georgia Democratic Party chairman, said he believed Ms. Abrams was increasingly receptive to the idea of running for Senate, rather than waiting for a rematch with Mr. Kemp in 2022.
“A month ago, I would have said this is not something that she would really be considering,” Mr. Porter said. “I would say it is probably a 50-50 call right now.”
If Ms. Abrams appears to be a politician with singular appeal, capturing a Senate seat in Georgia would still be no small challenge. The state’s demographics are changing, with the booming city and suburbs of Atlanta propelling Georgia toward majority-minority status within the next decade. But no Democrat has won a Senate race there since 2000, and the last to do so, Zell Miller, was a conservative-leaning former governor whose worldview and strategy came from a now-distant political generation.
Mr. Perdue, a wealthy businessman from a politically prominent family, won his first term in 2014 by trouncing Michelle Nunn, a prized Democratic recruit, by nearly 8 percentage points.
Former Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican who sought the Senate seat in 2014 but lost in the primary, said he saw Mr. Perdue as a strong bet for re-election. In a Senate race, Mr. Kingston said, Ms. Abrams would be up against the leftward tilt of her own party: He predicted Republicans would tie her to figures like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, three of the liberal women of color who electrified Democrats in the midterms, and who positioned themselves well to Ms. Abrams’s left.
“Georgia is still a conservative, center-right state,” Mr. Kingston said, adding of Ms. Abrams’s last race: “She had a really, really strong anti-Trump wave and she had a good organization with lots of outside money. But that’s not going to happen again.”
Ms. Abrams declined to be interviewed before the State of the Union. She has been occupied in Georgia launching a new nonprofit group, Fair Fight Georgia, that is waging a legal fight against the election rules that Democrats believe cost Ms. Abrams the race. Staying in the public eye, Ms. Abrams has been organizing “thank you” events with supporters around the state, and her group aired an ad about voting rights during the Super Bowl.
But the Senate race has been looming: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called Ms. Abrams shortly after the November election and urged her to run for Senate, and Senator Kamala Harris of California encouraged Ms. Abrams over lunch last month to run for office again, people briefed on the conversations said. Ms. Abrams met in January with Mr. Schumer and Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, who helms the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to discuss the campaign.
Though Democrats have long sought to regain their footing in the South — coveting Senate seats in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee — the urgency of that challenge has grown after the 2018 elections, when Democrats lost three Senate races in the rural Midwest even as they gained 40 seats in the House.
To break the Republicans’ 53-seat Senate majority, Democrats must gain three or four Republican-held seats in 2020, depending on whether they also control the vice presidency, which settles tied votes in the chamber. Mr. Perdue is one of three Southern incumbents who are likely to be seriously challenged, along with Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, and Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, currently the only Democratic senator in the Deep South.
Quentin James, a Democratic strategist who heads the Collective PAC, a group that backs African-American candidates, said Democrats’ best chance to take the Senate was by activating the increasingly diverse electorates in Republican-dominated Southern states.
“If you’re going to lose Blue Dog Democrats in Missouri and North Dakota,” Mr. James said, referring to states where centrist Democrats were defeated in November, “then you need to pick up seats somewhere, and you need to do it in the South.”
Mr. James expressed ambivalence about the all-out drive to recruit Ms. Abrams for the Senate race, calling her a superb contender but noting that the Democratic Party had not always been so receptive to candidates like her. In her campaign for governor, Ms. Abrams faced resistance from some prominent Democratic leaders, including former Gov. Roy Barnes and former Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who backed a white state legislator, Stacey Evans, for the Democratic nomination.
“I think there’s a lot of people wanting Stacey Abrams to save the party by running for the Senate,” Mr. James said. “And I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
If there was early hesitation about Ms. Abrams in the midterms, there is no trace of Democratic skepticism now.
Nancy Koziol, a Democratic political donor who attended Ms. Abrams’s December event in New York, said she hoped Ms. Abrams would challenge Mr. Perdue. And, channeling Ms. Abrams’s stature in the Democratic imagination, Ms. Koziol envisioned a path leading beyond even the Senate.
“I would love to see her have a bigger stage,” Ms. Koziol said. “I would love to see her be president when my daughter can vote for her.”